A Curious Invitation: Trimalchio's Dinner Party
In this extract, Suzette Field sheds light on Trimalchio's infamous dinner party from Arbiter's The Satyricon.
Location: Campania, south-west Italy
Host: Gaius Pompeius Trimalchio
Date: mid-first century AD
From The Satyricon (AD 63–5) attributed to Gaius Petronius Arbiter
Only a fraction of the original text of The Satyricon has come down to us today, so it’s unclear who its narrator, Encolpius, and his friend, Ascyltos, are. In the first surviving section of the book we find Encolpius arguing with a professor named Agamemnon at a school of rhetoric in the Campania province of southern Italy, so we can perhaps assume that they are scholars there. The case for them being students is made by the fact that they do no discernible studying for the rest of the book, spending most of their time in orgies, petty thefts, fights and squabbles over Giton, who is Encolpius’s catamite (a sort of rent boy).
In the first century AD, to be schooled in rhetoric was something of a meal ticket. It ensured invitations to the tables of the wealthy to perform your party turn (like karaoke, but where the performers actually have some talent).
This appears to be how Encolpius, Ascyltos and Giton come to be invited to accompany Agamemnon to a dinner hosted by the wealthiest man in Campania: Gaius Pompeius Trimalchio.
Bald, fat, wearing a scarlet robe and weighed down with jewellery, Trimalchio is the perfect vulgarian host: he picks his teeth with a silver quill, makes public use of a piss-pot, treats his guests to a commentary on the state of his bowels and eulogizes the medicinal benefits of farting. A devout voluptuary, his dissolute lifestyle is believed to be based on that of Nero (the emperor at the time). However, Trimalchio is a self-made man, a former slave who earned his millions in the shipping trade and effortlessly lives up to the stereotype of nouveau-riche boorishness. He boasts about buying Sicily so he can sail to North Africa along his own coasts. He orders that a silver dish dropped during the banquet should be swept away with the rubbish. He keeps a water clock and a liveried trumpeter in his dining room to remind him of the passing of time, which serves as a way to justify his decadent and ostentatious lifestyle. As he puts it: ‘Since we know that our death is in the offing, why don’t we enjoy life?’
The hostess is Trimalchio’s wife, Fortunata, an ex-lap dancer with a shrewd eye for personal advancement, who now runs Trimalchio’s business affairs. She refinanced his business by selling her jewellery when his first shipment of wine sank. These days she is a respectable lady, though apparently she has lost none of her skills at performing the cordax (a sort of Roman pole-dance).*
* No one knows how the cordax was danced but it was considered lewd. Actually just to dance at all was deemed improper in Roman times. The Emperor Tiberius had all the dancing masters driven out of Rome and Cicero opined, ‘One could do a man no graver injury than to call him a dancer. A man cannot dance unless he is drunk or insane.’
Trimalchio’s house shares his humble beginnings. He boasts about how, in a spate of home improvements, he transformed the former hovel into a palace with ‘four dining-rooms, twenty bedrooms, two marble colonnades, a suite of small apartments upstairs, my own bedroom, the boudoir of this viper here (his wife), and a pleasant office for the doorman.’ His personal touches to the decor include a wall-mounted golden casket containing the first shavings of his juvenile beard and a mural depicting the history of his rise to wealth and social standing.
The entrance to the dining room chosen for the evening’s festivities is constructed from the bronze prow of a ship, overlaid with rods and axes (the insignia of a consul, to which Trimalchio has no entitlement, making it the Roman equivalent of a bogus coat of arms).
The Guest List
About sixteen people are invited. Most of them are drawn from the ranks of the local professional class and several, like their host, are ex-slaves made good. The rhetorician Agamemnon and his pupils are in attendance, plus Phileros, a lawyer (and ex-travelling salesman); Habinnas, a stonemason; Echion, who works in the rag trade; Proculus, an undertaker; and Diogenes, another self-made businessman. The gathering also includes Hermeros, Seleucus, Dama, Ganymedes, Niceros and Plocamus.
Roman etiquette did not permit unaccompanied women to attend dinner parties, so the only females present are Fortunata and Scintilla (the wife of Habinnas).
The superstitious Trimalchio insists that his guests enter the dining room with their right foot first (to bring good luck), after which their hands are washed in snow-chilled water (later in wine) and their toenails trimmed by attentive Alexandrian slave boys. To illustrate his superior status Trimalchio has his hands washed in perfume.
The Dress Code
Petronius tells us a lot about what the guests said and ate, but little about what they wore. We can assume that the dress code was togas, setting the precedent for a lot of modern-day campus parties.
The host and hostess share a fondness for ostentatious jewellery. Trimalchio boasts of his wife’s bijoux, ‘She must be wearing at least six and a half pounds’ worth of the stuff’, but to avoid being outdone in the bling stakes he orders a slave to bring scales to verify the superior weight of his own accessories.
The Food and Drink
Despite it being a relatively modest gathering (Trimalchio hints that he hosted a grander party the night before) the catering is sufficient to feed a small army. Twelve punishing courses are presented on a dinner service made out of silver and Corinthian bronze. The food is washed down with hundred-year-old Opimian Falernian, a sweet white wine regarded as the Château d’Yquem of Ancient Rome.
First course – A bronze donkey bearing a double pannier of olives flanked by a gridiron of sausages, damsons and dormice coated with poppy seeds and honey.
Second course – A wooden hen sitting on a nest full of peahens’ eggs, which in turn contain garden warblers cooked in spiced egg yolk.
Third course – A zodiacal arrangement of hors d’oeuvres concealing a surprise dish of winged hare surrounded by stuffed capons and sows’ bellies.
Fourth course – Whole wild boar accompanied by pastry suckling piglets and filled with live thrushes.
Fifth course – A hog stuffed with sausages and meat puddings.
Sixth course – A boiled calf wearing a helmet, sliced up by a slave dressed as the hero Ajax who serves the meat on the point of his sword.
Seventh course – A statue of the fertility god Priapus whose paunch holds a medley of saffron-squirting cakes and fruits.
Eighth course – An array of boneless fattened chickens served with pastry-capped goose eggs.
Ninth course – Thrushes made out of pastry, stuffed with nuts and raisins, accompanied by quinces.
Tenth course – A dish of pork dressed up to look like a fattened goose garnished with birds and fish.
Eleventh course – Water jugs full of oysters and scallops accompanied by a gridiron of snails.
Twelfth course – An improvised early hours addition to the menu: a cock which had crowed early (regarded by the superstitious host as a bad omen) is captured, slaughtered, pot-roasted in wine and served to the guests, who somehow find the appetite to devour it.
At this point there is a lost section of the book’s text, which admits the frightening possibility that the menu might have been longer.
As if serving dishes of this complexity was not demanding enough, the slaves waiting on tables are obliged to do so while singing, dancing, doing bird impressions or reciting Trimalchio’s hack poetry. Even the carving of the meat is choreographed in strict time to music.
The rhetoricians never get to put their public-speaking skills to the test as there is far too much competition. When the bombastic Trimalchio finally vacates the room to pay a visit to the lavatory to relieve his constipation it merely provides an excuse for other, equally verbose guests to take over.
Dama complains about how bad the weather has been of late. Ganymede grumbles about the price of corn and rues how mercenary everyone in today’s world has become (which he blames on a decline in religious faith). Echion gives vent to a long discourse on sport, in this case gladiatorial combat, bemoaning the decline in quality of the fights. He follows up with a lecture on the importance of getting your children a good education so they can enter a lucrative profession, like the law. Hermeros, one of the freedmen, unleashes a drunken rant concluding with how young people don’t have any respect for their elders any more.
This is the earliest literary record we have of dinner party conversation and perhaps we should be slightly embarrassed to realize how little table talk has evolved in two thousand years.
Actors and acrobats perform between courses, but no one can match the spectacle provided by the host himself, with his poems, homilies and philosophizing, all laced with pomposity, boastfulness and vulgarity and interspersed with outbreaks of cantankerousness, sentimentality and self-pity.
Just in case his guests are in any doubt as to how busy, important and wealthy Trimalchio is, his secretary arrives halfway through the dinner to read aloud the accounts of the estate.
After supper the slaves are permitted to join the diners, but this proves to be just another excuse for Trimalchio to show off. He sends for his will and reads it out in its entirety, announcing the slaves’ imminent freedom and graciously accepting their humble expressions of gratitude.
Now thoroughly drunk, the host becomes maudlin and morbid. He issues Habbinas the stonemason with instructions for designing and building his mausoleum. ‘It’s quite wrong for a man to have an elegant house in life, and not to give thought to our longer place of residence’, Trimalchio opines, managing to be profound and crass at the same time. He stipulates that the size of his fortune (30 million sesterces) should be engraved in his epitaph.
In a final act of glorious sentimentality (which the narrator says ‘was enough to make you spew’), Trimalchio stages a dress rehearsal of his funeral, complete with musicians and weeping mourners. He sends for his shroud, lies back on a mound of pillows and instructs his trumpeters to ‘Imagine I’m dead. Play something nice.’
Perhaps looking forward to the demise of their master more than he supposes, the slaves blare out a funeral march with such gusto that it wakens the whole neighbourhood. The city sentinels, assuming that the building is on fire, arrive and smash down the door with axes. The students grab the chance to slip gratefully away in the confusion.
Gaius Petronius Arbiter, generally held to be the author of The Satyricon, went one better than Trimalchio by genuinely combining his death with a party. He had been Nero’s elegantiae arbiter (literally ‘arbiter of taste’ – an early version of a style consultant), but subsequently incurred the jealousy of the head of the Praetorian Guard and was arraigned on a charge of treason. Left with no option but to commit suicide he decided to make an occasion of it. He invited some friends over and opened his veins accompanied by wine, poetry and sparkling conversation. So good was the party that he temporarily bandaged up his veins again so he could enjoy a little more of it.
Have a look at some more of Lynn Hatzius' fantastic illustrations from A Curious Invitation to whet your appetite for the book.
Read Suzette Field's introduction to the book.